If everything goes as hoped, the Ben Barber Career Tech Academy could gain 31,000 square feet of additional classrooms and work space by the fall semester of 2016.Problem is, Principal Catherine Hudgins needs that expansion tomorrow.“We’re having to turn students away because we don’t have enough room for them,” she said. “We want to be able to meet the demands of the students and the community.”The vocational school’s enrollment is about 9,200 students, an increase of 1,400 students, or 18 percent, over last year. Almost all are students from the five traditional Mansfield high schools who spend part of their school day in one or more of Ben Barber’s 14 career programs of study, Hudgins said. About 235 of those students attend Ben Barber’s Frontier High School and are on the campus all day.The expansion project is still in the design phase, so timelines could change, said Jeff Brogden, assistant superintendent for construction services. He said he expects to have a design ready to present to the school board in October. Ben Barber’s 180,964 square feet would increase by 17 percent, at a projected cost of $7 million to $8 million, Brogden said. The school district likely would pay for the expansion by dipping into unused funds from the 2006 bond, which currently has a balance of $17 million in unallocated principal and interest, said Brogden, who is optimistic the board trustees will approve.“They’re very excited about it, and they’ve given us the authority to begin the design and budget estimation phase,” he said. If he gets the votes, construction could begin next spring, which would make the fall 2016 opening achievable.About 24,000 square feet of the expansion would provide 24 additional classrooms, and about 7,200 square feet would be earmarked for the welding, manufacturing and culinary programs. Ben Barber’s biggest program is built around health care, but the one with the longest waiting list is the culinary program.“We’re going to add three more kitchens,” Hudgins said, to supplement the one large kitchen the school has now. “That’s where we’re turning away the most kids.”She said that in the meantime, she and district officials would consider ways to reduce crowding. One option is to relocate some entry-level courses to the traditional high schools. “We’re doing everything we can, exploring every avenue,” she said.Ben Barber, which offers an array of career courses – from agriculture to tourism to welding – may soon feel even more growing pains under a new state law that makes many vocational courses mandatory.House Bill 5, which took effect this school year, requires all incoming freshmen to work with their counselors to choose an endorsement – one of five areas of focus that becomes part of their graduation plan. Those specialties are the combined subjects of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); arts and humanities; public service; business and industry; and “multi-disciplinary,” which means taking classes in all four other endorsements. Space is a problem for the school, but not the variety of programs.“We couldn’t be more aligned with House Bill 5,” Hudgins said.Ben Barber isn’t waiting for its new space to introduce a new program for computer numerical control (CNC) manufacturing, in which computers are programmed to direct tools to build complex components, start-to-finish, and with less or no human assistance. The school launched its CNC offering this semester after months of developing content with the assistance of the Texas Workforce Commission, city economic development officials and local industries that have a vested interest in workforce-ready high school graduates.In fact, Hudgins said, the city and industry officials came to the school asking for help finding CNC Level 1 operators, the entry level in that field.Students take the software part of the program three days a week, and will get hands-on training at several partner industries in the school district. In the spring semester, those industries will provide on-site internships for the students, she said.
Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641 Twitter: @Kaddmann